Amplified Observations: Pitch-shifted singing started in 1960s, but did Frank Ocean recently perfect it?

The past year evolved the musical landscape in ways unimaginable in January.

Creative godhead Kanye West dropped a revolutionarily fluid album, The Life Of Pablo, back in spring and The Avalanches finally released a sophomore album, filling the 16-year gap from their acclaimed 2000 debut Since I Left You. Both of those masterworks are slightly overshadowed, however, by an album with a greater ambition and rarity.

In the wake of a four-year anticipation stirred by 2012’s Channel Orange, Frank Ocean not only returned this year with a proper follow-up album in Blonde, but also took one sonic effect to its musical zenith.

Blonde, released Aug. 20, utilizes pitch-shifted singing, a technique in which a sound’s original pitch is raised or lowered, in the most artistic way yet. A practice once used for exaggerated effects and chipmunk-like vocals becomes the vehicle of lyrical significance in Ocean’s work.

On the album opener “Nikes,” we find Ocean’s voice pitched up into a seemingly female-exclusive range. Since his breakout single “Thinkin Bout You” had been penned for a female artist, it isn’t unimaginable that Ocean sought a way to sing in this range.

Ocean even alludes to the high range on the album’s final song “Futura Free,” where he drops the term “castrati.” Castrati refers to male singers who retain a soprano range, usually through developmental deviation or bodily intervention. The fact that the obscure term is even included on the album might shed light on his approach.

Another album, released Sept. 30, also made use of upward-shifted vocal pitches. Bon Iver’s latest achievement 22A Million contains pitch-shifted vocal melodies on songs like the opener “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” and the single “33 ‘GOD’ ” similar to that of Ocean’s pitch. Along with Blonde’s hour-long length, 22, A Million is worth every bit of its 34-minute runtime.

Although the most prominently featured, “Nikes” is not the only song on Ocean’s second studio album with manipulated vocals. “Self Control” and the aforementioned “Futura Free” also make use of the practice in sections shorter than the full verse on “Nikes.” All three of these songs embody overtones of life, love and struggling, three emotionally weighted themes.

The inclusion of contrast between male and female vocal ranges practically creates the illusion of a duet, despite all the singing being sung by a single voice. And aside from “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” from Kendrick Lamar’s breakout Good Kid, M.A.A.D Cityand the chorus tomfoolery on Vampire Weekend’s “Diane Young,” voice pitching has not been employed in this particular fashion. It offers a glimpse of innovation within Ocean’s long-awaited follow-up.

Unlike Kanye West’s method on 808s and Heartbreak, the effects did not correct vocal mistakes but instead opened a new frontier of possible melodies and multi-octave harmonies.

In the same manner Channel Orange redefined how a modern R&B record could sound, Blonde has the potential to open doors for the burgeoning musicians of today, showing them how closely technology has allowed musicians to recreate the visions first manifested in their heads.

Like several of the albums mentioned above, Blonde’s lyrical wealth and sonic innovation is likely to set a trend in the capabilities and direction of popular music for years to come.


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